As we enter the second half of 2003, a good summer evening might be a good time to pause and look back at the bewildering events of winter and spring. This, to say things mildly, has been a momentous period for Morocco and the world. And when one looks closely at the separate events that mark this period, it is hard to speak with the confidence of PR spinners or the false optimism of politicians. The picture that emerges out of this six-month stretch is cloudy and blurred. Morocco, like much of the world, seems to be at the juncture of yet another major crossroads, one fraught with perils and promises. The crystal ball I peer into—never reliable in politics–exudes light and darkness, as if a mere misstep in the wrong direction could drive Morocco and the world into total chaos.
But let’s unpack this hazy picture and look at its discrete parts. Morocco began the year promising to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., the second Arab country to do so after Jordan. (Morocco’s FTA with the U.S. will be the subject of a future column.) This means that Morocco continues to act on its strong resolve to join the global economy. And the facts do reflect this. This year’s A.T. Kearney/Foreign Policy Magazine Globalization Index shows that of the 62 countries measured, Morocco is one of the top thirty (29th, actually) most globalized countries in the world, 10 ranks ahead of the next Arab state on the list (Tunisia, rank 39). Indicators such as political engagement, technology, personal contact, and economic integration were used to determine a country’s openness. Morocco earned its place mostly because of the privatization of the telecommunications industry. But that does not mean that Morocco is doing well economically. On the contrary, according to the World Economic Forum, the Arab world’s share of the world’s exports has fallen from 10.7 percent in 1981 to 3.5 percent in 2001. The Arab world’s economy is stagnating, with Arab countries relying on the export of petroleum products or on “labor-intensive manufactures, as in the case of Morocco and Tunisia.”
Two other events define Morocco’s place in the global economy. Eighty percent of its state-owned tobacco company, Régie des Tabacs du Maroc (RTM, the 6th biggest in Morocco) has been purchased by Altadis, a European firm, for 1,292 millions euros in cash. This considerable sum was not invested unwisely: Altadis executives are actually quite ecstatic about their acquisition of Morocco’s monopoly on cigarette products, for that gives them access to a huge market, considered the 5th largest in Africa. (Cigarettes are a profitable business in Morocco’s otherwise shaky economy.)
The construction of the gigantic Mediterranean Port of Tangier, entrusted to the French Bouygues Corporation, is also designed to hasten the process of Morocco’s integration into the global economy. This project—scheduled to be completed by 2007– is supposed to achieve several things at once, including jump starting the development of Morocco’s long-neglected northern regions, consolidating the country’s position with its European economic partners, and facilitating the flow of goods into international markets.
There is no doubt, then, that Morocco is doing all it can to become a more serious player in the global economy and attract foreign investments. But the headline makers mentioned above should not distract us from asking the fundamental questions. Will such projects help Morocco in its major battle against a long list of social ills such as poverty, illiteracy, a dysfunctional public educational system, depleted fisheries, and the deteriorating quality of public spaces (lack of public parks in big cities, polluted beaches, environmental degradation, etc.)? Will these strategic choices help integrate the millions of Moroccans living the shadow of opulence, those trying to survive against all odds, into the sphere of social hope that eludes so many? Will the lot of the poor and struggling lower middle classes improve, or will these projects further enrich the wealthy who are always well placed to reap the benefits of such investments, and thus create, in the process, even worse social conditions?
This year’s picture does indeed remind us that Morocco is being pulled into two radically opposed extremes. Some live in the future, others in the ancient past or in the dungeons of captivity. Privatization injects more money in the government’s coffers, but the government cannot do much for those who are abandoned. While a new class of Moroccan jet setters is emerging, others embark on the so-called pateras of death, putting their lives and lives of their families—including babies—at risk. Even if they are lucky enough to survive their passage across the Straits, a hellish life of exile and exploitation awaits them on the other side. The cosmopolitan freedom of a few Moroccans is accompanied by the entrapment of the many. Grounded Moroccans seek answers in the sermons of false preachers, oracles of doom who promise more than they can deliver. The events of May 16—Morocco’s version of 9/11—are a stark reminder of the darker promises of religion. Those who are not harragas or attracted to religious sermons may gravitate toward a life of delinquency or erupt in violence. I was shocked to read recently that with its reported prison population of 54, 288 or 191 people out of 100, 000, Morocco’s incarceration rates are now ranked fifth in the world, after the U.S., Russia, South Africa, and Tunisia. (Recent amnesties may have alleviated this figure somewhat.)
I will spare you my thoughts on globalization, but why don’t you take out your crystal balls and look into them? Where do you see Morocco ten, twenty, or thirty years from now? Even Morocco’s brightest commercial spot—consumption of cigarettes—is an ominous sign for the future. (According to Altadis, 4.4 million Moroccan adults, or 24 % of the adult population, smoke.) Our health care system will be unable to handle the looming health catastrophe resulting from so much smoking. Are we pursuing the right strategy for development? Is Morocco on the right cultural track? Will young Moroccans in 2020 be playing rock music or listening to religious chants? Could both cultures coexist without each calling the other “satanic”? Will the poor and rich clash, or will a more distributive economic system prevent social turmoil?
As you ponder these issues, try to imagine yourself in a position of responsibility, one that requires you to make decisions, not just complain. I am very interested in your carefully thought out comments, predictions, and analyses.